High blood pressure (hypertension)
High blood pressure, or hypertension, rarely has noticeable symptoms. But if untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems such as heart attacks and strokes. The only way to find out if your blood pressure is high is to have your blood pressure checked.
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is recorded with two numbers. The systolic pressure (higher number) is the force at which your heart pumps blood around your body.
The diastolic pressure (lower number) is the resistance to the blood flow in the blood vessels. They’re both measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg).
High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when your blood pressure increases to unhealthy levels. Your blood pressure measurement takes into account how much blood is passing through your blood vessels and the amount of resistance the blood meets while the heart is pumping.
Narrow arteries increase resistance. The narrower your arteries are, the higher your blood pressure will be. Over the long term, increased pressure can cause health issues, including heart disease.
As a general guide:
- high blood pressure is considered to be 140/90mmHg or higher
- ideal blood pressure is considered to be between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg
- low blood pressure is considered to be 90/60mmHg or lower
A blood pressure reading between 120/80mmHg and 140/90mmHg could mean you’re at risk of developing high blood pressure if you don’t take steps to keep your blood pressure under control.
What are the symptoms of hypertension?
Hypertension is generally a silent condition. Many people won’t experience any symptoms. It may take years or even decades for the condition to reach levels severe enough that symptoms become obvious. Even then, these symptoms may be attributed to other issues.
Symptoms of severe hypertension can include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- visual changes
- blood in the urine
These symptoms require immediate medical attention. They don’t occur in everyone with hypertension, but waiting for a symptom of this condition to appear could be fatal.
The best way to know if you have hypertension is to get regular blood pressure readings. Most doctors’ take a blood pressure reading at every appointment.
if you have a family history of heart disease or have risk factors for developing the condition, your doctor may recommend that you have your blood pressure checked thrice a year. This helps you and your doctor stay on top of any possible issues before they become problematic.
Types of Hypertension
There are two types of hypertension. Each type has a different cause.
Primary hypertension is also called essential hypertension. This kind of hypertension develops over time with no identifiable cause. Most people have this type of high blood pressure.
Researchers are still unclear what mechanisms cause blood pressure to slowly increase. A combination of factors may play a role. These factors include:
- Genes: Some people are genetically predisposed to hypertension. This may be from gene mutations or genetic abnormalities inherited from your parents.
- Physical changes: If something in your body changes, you may begin experiencing issues throughout your body. High blood pressure may be one of those issues. For example, it’s thought that changes in your kidney function due to ageing may upset the body’s natural balance of salts and fluid. This change may cause your body’s blood pressure to increase.
- Environment: Over time, unhealthy lifestyle choices like lack of physical activity and poor diet can take their toll on your body. Lifestyle choices can lead to weight problems. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of hypertension.
Secondary hypertension often occurs quickly and can become more severe than primary hypertension. Several conditions that may cause secondary hypertension include:
- kidney disease
- obstructive sleep apnea
- congenital heart defects
- problems with your thyroid
- side effects of medications
- use of illegal drugs
- alcohol abuse or chronic use
- adrenal gland problems
- certain endocrine tumours
Risks of high blood pressure
If your blood pressure is too high, it puts extra strain on your blood vessels, heart and other organs, such as the brain, kidneys and eyes.
Persistent high blood pressure can increase your risk of a number of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, such as:
- heart disease
- heart attacks
- heart failure
- peripheral arterial disease
- aortic aneurysms
- kidney disease
- vascular dementia
If you have high blood pressure, reducing it even a small amount can help lower your risk of these conditions.
Check your blood pressure
The only way of knowing whether you have high blood pressure is to have a blood pressure test.
All adults over 40 are advised to have their blood pressure checked at least every four months. Getting this done is easy and could save your life.
If your blood pressure remains high, your doctor will likely conduct more tests to rule out underlying conditions. These tests can include:
- urine test
- cholesterol screening and other blood tests
- test of your heart’s electrical activity with an electrocardiogram(referred to as an ECG)
- ultrasound of your heart or kidneys
These tests can help your doctor identify any secondary issues causing your elevated blood pressure. They can also look at the effects high blood pressure may have had on your organs.
During this time, your doctor may begin treating your hypertension. Early treatment may reduce your risk of lasting damage.
Causes of high blood pressure
It’s not always clear what causes high blood pressure, but certain things can increase your risk.
You’re at an increased risk of high blood pressure if you:
- are over the age of 65
- are overweight or obese
- are of African or Caribbean descent
- have a relative with high blood pressure
- eat too much salt and don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables
- don’t do enough exercise
- drink too much alcohol or coffee (or other caffeine-based drinks)
- don’t get much sleep or have disturbed sleep
Making healthy lifestyle changes can help reduce your chances of getting high blood pressure and help lower your blood pressure if it’s already high.
How to reduce blood pressure?
The following lifestyle changes can help prevent and lower high blood pressure:
- reduce the amount of salt you eat and have a generally healthy diet
- cut back on alcohol if you drink too much
- lose weight if you’re overweight
- exercise regularly
- cut down on caffeine
- stop smoking
- try to get at least six hours of sleep a night
Some people with high blood pressure may also need to take one or more medicines to stop their blood pressure getting too high.
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